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Falcons' Raheem Morris swimming against tide as Black NFL coach

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

After the Atlanta Falcons started 0-5 this season, team owner Arthur Blank determined that something had to be done to try to turn the tide. Just three years removed from a gut-wrenching loss in the Super Bowl, the Falcons looked to be on the right track toward building a consistent winner under coach Dan Quinn.

Things can change quickly in the NFL.

Raheem Morris

Blank cleaned house, parting with Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff and promoting defensive coordinator Raheem Morris to interim coach for the final 11 games of the season.

Morris became the first Black head coach in Falcons franchise history and made a good first impression, with a 40-23 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings. Even before Morris had coached his first game, there already was a controversy. Blank, who has been the team owner since 2002, spoke about the chances of Morris being considered for the permanent job.

“Absolutely. If Raheem ends up 11-0, he's going to be certainly a candidate,” Blank said.

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Blank’s deadpan response drew a laugh from team president Rich McKay on their teleconference, but it also revealed some of the disparity between the opportunities Black coaching candidates get — or don’t get in the NFL — and their counterparts.

Morris, 44, had a previous stint as a head coach, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009. That three-year stretch included a 10-6 season in ’10 and a 17-31 overall record. Morris was one of eight Black coaches in the NFL in 2011 — the high-water mark in a single season — during the league’s push to provide more opportunities for minority coaches.

The numbers have tailed off since then.

In the midst of the country’s social-justice movement and the focus on sports, the spotlight again shines on the NFL, which implemented the Rooney Rule to offer more opportunities for minority candidates in interviewing for open coaching positions.

At the beginning of this season, there were just three Black coaches: Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh Steelers), Anthony Lynn (Los Angeles Chargers) and Brian Flores (Miami Dolphins). The count jumped to five with the addition of Romeo Crennel (Houston Texans) and Morris as interim coaches.

Raheem Morris

The small number of Black coaches in the NFL is alarming to many.

“This question is already answered; everybody knows it's striking, and it's been on high alert for a couple of years now,” Morris said via teleconference this week. “The thing with me is it's always about mentality before it's ever reality, and also for me it's my grandmother, who's 90 years old, and it’s no excuses.

“She raised eight kids, and she absolutely dominated the '70s and came up and became a teacher. So, she left me no room for excuses on why not. (She said) ‘Somebody's got to come out and be head coaches; somebody's got to get these opportunities — why not you?’ That's the mentality I take for that.”

Blank was one of the original members of the committee that drafted the Rooney Rule, which has been well-intentioned, but there seemingly have been instances where teams have given token interviews and hired their intended candidate.

There will be a focus on the Falcons, who have both the coach and GM roles to fill.

“I understand the rules and understand the intent behind them and it's our intent to be very intentional — which doesn't mean we'll be bound — but it does mean that we'll certainly create a level playing field as best we can,” Blank said.

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The Lions had one of the most diverse combinations of front office personnel and coaching staffs a few years ago, when they had Martin Mayhew as general manager from 2009-15 and Jim Caldwell as coach from 2014-17. That coaching staff also featured Teryl Austin as defensive coordinator and several position coaches, all of whom are Black.

With Caldwell’s departure, the franchise moved to current coach Matt Patricia, who has tried to do his part to help provide more opportunities for minority candidates to get on the path to getting chances to become head coaches.

“I think that we have to do a better job to make sure that everybody has an opportunity and certainly, that we’re doing our due diligence with that and making sure that we’re developing coaches,” Patricia said this week. “We need to make sure that we’re developing coaches, minority coaches. Just even when I got here to the Lions, I started a different program to help develop minority coaches, and really commit more to that.

Matt Patricia

“Through the two years of our program, we’ve been able to elevate coaches that maybe didn’t have that opportunity or maybe guys that played in the league that maybe didn’t kind of get that call in their early 20s — sort of coaching experience — because they were playing, which is a whole other level of experience that you can’t get as a coach.”

The current Lions coaching staff has several Black position coaches and Patricia has advocated for more structure within the coaching staff to allow coaches to get the chances to show that they’re capable of moving into bigger roles. In his two seasons with the Lions, he’s sought to put that in his coaching philosophy.

“Honestly, it’s something that we’ve been pushing through the league, and the league actually adopted, this year, a model of our program, which was phenomenal, because we need that in place,” Patricia said. “That’s what we have to do. I think we have to continue to make sure that we’re getting that equality with it because it’s so important.”

The remainder of the season will be an audition for Morris in Atlanta and Crennel in Houston, but whether they assume the role of permanent coach, there’s still more work to do in the Rooney Rule and providing more chances when coaching jobs open.

With the interim tag, there’s far less security, but even those opportunities are coveted and as Blank noted, provide some glimpse into what they can do in the long term.

“Raheem, I’ve known him for a long time and he’s a great coach. He’s organized (and) I played against him when he was the head coach in Tampa, and how phenomenal and how hard his guys play for him,” Patricia said. “Certainly, Romeo Crennel is – I mean I absolutely love Romeo Crennel. He’s a guy I’ve known a long time, he took great care of me when I was a young coach and educated me and helped me along the way.

“He’s forgotten more football than I’ll probably ever know just with his experience. I think it is important that when those situations come up, obviously whatever they’re doing out there is important.”